Police and city officials across the country should study how Olympia has been handling Thursday’s police shooting.
When an officer shoots a citizen under murky circumstances, a common law enforcement response has been to hunker down and say as little as possible. Whatever the truth may be, the public perceives a band of buddies closing ranks to protect one of their own. The details dribble out slowly; in the meantime, speculation and rumors run wild.
The most infamous recent case played out last year in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting by Officer Darren Wilson.
The Ferguson police department said virtually nothing about the confrontation; all the public knew was the bare fact that a white cop had gunned down an unarmed black teenager.
Hearsay filled in the details, and misinformation went viral on social media. Many believed an unverified account that Wilson had shot Brown in the back or while he was trying to surrender. Riots followed.
The City of Lakewood fell into the same trap last month when officers shot a mentally disturbed man after they reportedly mistook his cellphone for a gun. The police department provided almost no details for three weeks. It’s a blessing the situation didn’t escalate.
When there’s a vacuum of information about a potentially explosive event, anything might enter it.
Now look at Olympia.
According to police, two unarmed black men were shot – non-fatally, thank heaven – by a white officer around 1 a.m. during a reported street conflict. This had the makings of a mini-Ferguson.
But the official response couldn’t have been more different. Within hours, an earnest-looking police chief, flanked by the mayor and city manager, held a press conference and released a substantial amount of information.
Chief Ronnie Roberts provided a chronology of the shooting and the events that led up to it. Unlike his counterparts in Lakewood and elsewhere, Roberts named the officer involved and briefly described his background.
He said that both a criminal investigation and an internal police review had already begun. He was neutral and calm. He promised to keep the details coming. “We do not know all the details yet,” he said. “We will give out information as soon as it becomes available to be as transparent as possible.”
The city held yet another press conference a few hours later. Community meetings were immediately announced; people knew where and when they’d be able to air concerns and grievances.
The public doesn’t know exactly what happened in that shooting. Perhaps only the officer and the two hospitalized men know. There’s simply no basis for an informed judgment at this point.
What is evident is that Olympia officials are not hiding from their community and are doing their best to dispel perceptions of a police cover-up.
More details will come out in the weeks ahead. Maybe the shooting will seem justified; maybe it won’t. In the meantime, the city’s leaders don’t come off like they’re reaching for ways to conceal possible police misconduct.
The public is well-served by this kind of response. We hope the Tacoma Police Department, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and other South Sound law enforcement agencies are taking notes.